The Roots of Labor

Over the Christmas holiday, I was watching a French TV program with my au pair family entitled Les racines et les ailes. Translating literally to “the roots and the wings,” it’s a show in which a dude walks and flies in a helicopter around bits of France (sometimes it’s not in France, I think, but this episode was) and talks to people about local geography and history and stuff like that. It’s the kind of vaguely anthropological, vaguely ethnographic kind of show that wouldn’t go over very well with American audiences but is evidently successful here.

Anyway, I am eating Nutella with a spoon and reading an essay entitled “In the Name of Love,” about the way “do what you love” as a work philosophy tends to undercut the value of laborers who are vital to society but not necessarily doing what they love but rather what needs to be done (or mass-producing stuff the do what you love – DWYL – folks have designed). As Miya Tokumitsu points out,

One consequence of this isolation is the division that DWYL creates among workers, largely along class lines. Work becomes divided into two opposing classes: that which is lovable (creative, intellectual, socially prestigious) and that which is not (repetitive, unintellectual, undistinguished). Those in the lovable work camp are vastly more privileged in terms of wealth, social status, education, society’s racial biases, and political clout, while comprising a small minority of the workforce.

She goes on to point out that this devaluation goes so far as to erase unloved labor from the consciousness of those who are doing–or pursuing, at least–work that they love. Powerfully, she says:

If we believe that working as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur or a museum publicist or a think-tank acolyte is essential to being true to ourselves — in fact, to loving ourselves — what do we believe about the inner lives and hopes of those who clean hotel rooms and stock shelves at big-box stores? The answer is: nothing.

This essay’s central idea is that the “do what you love” ideology espoused by such notables as Steve Jobs doesn’t help anybody, from people in unglamorous positions they nevertheless need to feed, clothe, house themselves; to academic positions with low compensation relative to the skill and hours of labor involved (labor which is still labor, even if loved); to entry-level white collar jobs (and paisley collar? I’m not exactly sure what to call creative careers such as illustration or photography) which demand lovers of the professions to toil at unpaid internships beyond a point that is economically viable for anyone but the most privileged. 

In conclusion,

[The DWYL ideology] hides the fact that if we acknowledged all of our work as work, we could set appropriate limits for it, demanding fair compensation and humane schedules that allow for family and leisure time.

And if we did that, more of us could get around to doing what it is we really love.

This is an interesting last sentence for me, because I have always been really thrown off by leisure time. Leisure time. What even IS leisure? I was asked what I did in my free time during a job interview once, and after gawping for a little while and going “uh, uh, uh” I think I said I went running (I may also have mentioned researching how to tan hides and whether you could do this with roadkill). Obviously, I didn’t have much job interview experience. I also didn’t have much free time experience.

That semester, I had been doing what I loved, and I loved doing it, but I was working all the time. My roommate wouldn’t let me sleep in the room because my alarm annoyed her in the morning. So I cooked, ate, slept, and did my work in my dorm flat’s common room. I was taking three upper division art classes and beginning my thesis, which involved reading, analyzing, writing about, and discussing with a professor more than a book a week. I sort of had a social life, because on Thursday nights one of my roommate’s boyfriends would come over and we’d have a beer together after our last classes of the week. Most of my socializing that semester, actually, came from someone’s boyfriend bringing me a beer (out of pity, most likely) and having a drink before they actually went out and I stayed in and did more work.

I thought of it as being efficient–that I didn’t need to make time for leisure, because I was enjoying my work. Why take time off from something you enjoy doing? We get on the treadmill of Being Productive and never get off–but are we getting anything done?

My current work is being an au pair. That is how I earn room and board and something of a stipend. The overall experience is supposed to be a balance of cultural immersion, language exposure/education, and the childcare work. The childcare part of it, while not the whole package, is a big deal. Not only is it the main time I have to be really responsible, childcare is just a big deal, period.

The bare minimum for childcare is making sure the kids don’t hurt themselves. But the ideal is something pretty profound: childcare is, in essence, helping to shape human citizens, little beings who will grow up to be workers, themselves. People who may lead, who may reproduce in turn. In families with the means to hire live-in childcare, that socioeconomic privilege puts these kids at an even higher risk of being future leaders. As one of the main repeating characters in their lives, at least this year, I feel a certain weight to my responsibilities. I could keep them safe in front of the TV for a few hours each day easily, but would that to anything for their futures? For future society, of which they will be a part?

Which is how I find myself making a bull using only cardboard and scissors.

Which is how I find myself making a bull using only cardboard and scissors.

As I’m pondering this, I’m also highly aware of my role in the family. Much as I am treated in some ways like an equal of the other adults in the family, childcare and other household tasks (like laundry) is not seen as particularly meritorious. Part of this comes from the fact that household labor is traditionally (in patriarchal societies) unpaid labor [ahem, also traditionally–of women]. It is interesting to me, too, that au pairs seem to be regarded with a slightly higher social status than nannies. Even though nannies have usually been doing this child-minding thing longer and have it down to a science, au pairs are doing it as something of an exchange for a cultural experience; it’s that ‘higher’ ideal that puts us ‘ahead,’ if you will.

While I am unlikely to end up needing to find work in a factory or in another kind of strictly-manual labor position, I am deeply conscious of my working class background. Some of my relatives actually work in coal mines! When a friend of mine learned that, her reaction was hilarious: you mean coal miners still exist? Well, yeah… we still use coal.

But this comment underscores the truth of the article, “In the Name of Love.” When we’re privileged enough to expect to be able to go into fields like journalism, medicine, law, or graphic design, we are so entrenched in the ideology that our work must be not only our chosen field of labor but our passionate avocation that we forget there are people out there who can’t make that choice, and we devalue people who make other choices, like the choice to stay home and work raising children, or the choice to work a job you don’t love to support a family you do. 

There are a lot of things that need to happen in the world. There’s a moment in Tokumitsu’s essay that I particularly love when she describes some of the various jobs needed to allow Steve Jobs to focus on his job:

Think of the great variety of work that allowed Jobs to spend even one day as CEO: his food harvested from fields, then transported across great distances. His company’s goods assembled, packaged, shipped. Apple advertisements scripted, cast, filmed. Lawsuits processed. Office wastebaskets emptied and ink cartridges filled.

I was watching the show Les racines et les ailes with my au pair family, and at one point we were trying to figure out a good translation. Most of the translations we came up with were, frankly, super boring, trying too hard to mimic the structure of the title (“the this and the that”) while being more specific and less poetic with the sense of the nouns (i.e. “the history and the geography”). In truth, “roots and wings” works fairly well, if we can take roots and wings to be metaphorically intentioned.

For me, the translation of my roots has yet to ‘take flight’ into the kind of DWYL career I’m culturally encouraged and expected to find for myself. I am still firmly attached to a background that includes homemaking, farming, steel work, coal mining, and a wide range of other labors that raise children, build countries, and generally work as the foundation of all possibility for intellectual and creative work.

And in fact I remain unconvinced that such labors–labors of necessity–cannot be, in some instances, also labors of love. As a child, I was also fascinated by garbage collectors. How fun to ride the trucks and see different neighborhoods! I’m still into being a bagger at the grocery store, because I love playing grocery Tetris; I love gauging the appropriate heft and organization into tidy bags of a jumble of disorganized, heterogenous products. As much as I also love more esteemed activities that could lead to professional engagements of a white (or paisley?) collar nature such as writing, there is also a part of me that absolutely revels in manual labor, in stacking hay bales in a barn, in shoveling sand for hours, in picking berries until covered in blood.

I also have a serious appreciation for skilled, but devalued, labor, such as the labor that goes into making or tailoring well-fitted clothes. The labor behind a quilt is enormous, beautiful, practical. Butchering requires an unusual mix of subtlety and serious force. Yet in our fast moving culture, we have relegated such labors to the supposedly vaunted but actually marginalized status of craftsman, while we continue to spend our money primarily at stores supported by the thankless, unloved labor of mass production.

We also devalue the products of these labors. We keep untidy houses and say this is all right, because our professional-class labor is more important than the labor that keeps a house clean. We cook quick meals out of plastic boxes because our professional duties are calling; this is okay too, as our professional careers matter more to us than eating healthy, delicious food or savoring meals with family and friends. We are, after all, doing what we love.

Or are we? As I have navigated so-called higher education, I’ve learned that I have learned more from life working on farms than I have from most formal schooling. I’ve learned more about myself by throwing myself into another country and seeing what happens than by entering yet another classroom. As I’m thinking about future work, I’m drawn to certain kinds of tasks that I realize aren’t necessarily what someone of my educational background “should” be doing. Like, I really want to be a goat farmer, but I’ll probably get a Master’s degree.

What I think we need to realize is that there is no kind of career nirvana. We can never get so white collar that there is no collar at all. There is still a collar. There is still a shirt. Someone’s got to do the laundry, and beneath that, there’s a body to keep healthy and clean. We are all given various talents and abilities and shortcomings between our genetics, our upbringing, and our situational privilege. Personally, I believe it’s up to us to make the most meaning and find the most joy out of that that we can. That said, it’s up to us culturally to give credit where credit’s due–and a lot of that credit has to go to the people who unclog toilets, teach our children, pave our roads, pick up our garbage.


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